The State Department will take a serious look at serious games at its Tech@State event this Friday and Saturday, a quarterly conference and discussion that highlights how technology can be used for policy applications.
“We purposely try to choose topics out in front of where the department is,” said State Department spokesman Paul Swider. “Mainly because these are things we're interested in or need to pay attention to, but don't have in-house expertise on.”
Mallika Dutt of Breakthrough, an organization that uses social tools to advocate for human rights and social change, was “stunned” when she received an invitation to speak at the conference.
“I think it’s fascinating that the State Department is interested in gaming in a development agenda,” Dutt said. “This is actually a way to think about foreign policy, economic policy and could be huge potential for multiple organizations to think about how to reach people — and specifically how to reach the next generation.”
Breakthrough is the organization behind America 2049, a dystopic Facebook game set in the future that teaches players about social issues using real historical documents as they track down an escaped fugitive. More serious than your average Facebook game, it actually manages to incorporate a solid curriculum into its gameplay without clubbing players over the head with it.
Dutt said using a game creates a complex environment that lets Breakthrough highlight multiple issues and the bridges between those issues, and lets players explore the content first-hand without paying the price in real life.
Heidi Boisvert, the game’s creative director and producer, said the game works to “bridge the virtual world and physical world.”
To do that, Boisvert said the team considered making either a MMO -- a massively multiplayer online game, which turned out to be too costly -- or a Facebook game, which had more potential for viral propagation. The designers strived to make a stand-out Facebook game by pulling in elements from a lot of game genres.
One unique game feature is the inclusion of an in-game Internet. Within the Facebook platform, users can visit Zooglio, an in-game search engine that pulls real results from Google and fake results written by the designers. “It serves as a backstory that you bring back into the environment,” Boisvert said.
Dutt said these unique gameplay components — casting celebrity actors in the game, creating an in-game cable network called ZNN, and a satirical show that comes with a syllabus — creates a very rich experience of America at a crossroads
Boisvert said she’s been amazed by the reaction to the game, both from its dedicated fan base and, to her surprise, the gaming press.
“The press has been extremely positive and engaged in what we’re doing,” she said. Originally, she’d worried that the traditional gaming press would be skeptical or dismissive of a socially driven game.
The reaction to America 2049 has shown Boisvert “there is an opening and a responsiveness and a desire to understand this emerging genre.”
While upbeat on the potential games have to engage people in social issues, Boisvert and Dutt both said that games in and of themselves can’t change the world, but are a valuable tool.
“Breakthrough creates popular culture tools, and the game is just the tool itself -- a promontory,” Boisvert said. “You can’t get everything from the game, it needs to be supported by real-world practical elements.”
“For us it’s how we bring human rights home and how we make ourselves players in the human rights arena,” Dutt said. “Change starts with each one of us and this is a way to bring human rights home.”
As for what applications gaming may have for the State Department, Swider said that the conference is all about keeping an open mind.
“We go into this without preconceived notions,” he said. “It’s not a big RFP; the purpose is to learn more about what we might do with these tools, to say let's dig into what this topic is and how to understand it.”
Those interested in attending the conference will have to act fast. Swider said registration is filling up, but that the conference will be streamed and archived on the Tech@State site.